Red Bull’s domination of the 2023 season continued Sunday as Baku specialist Sergio Perez claimed victory in Azerbaijan to move to within six points of Max Verstappen in the championship.
Perez perfect in Azerbaijan
Around the roads of Baku’s capital Red Bull Racing was once more streets ahead. Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez swiftly dispatched pole man Charles Leclerc during the early laps and cruised away. The timing of the safety car period – caused by Nyck de Vries’ stricken AlphaTauri – skewered Verstappen, who had already stopped, enabling yet-to-pit Perez to limit his pit lane loss time and emerge in front. From there, Perez managed the pace for the remainder of proceedings, keeping a slight gap over Verstappen, to make it 2-2 in the win stakes between the Red Bull drivers in 2023.
Perez became the first multiple winner in Baku, on the occasion of the circuit’s seventh grand prix, while Red Bull’s advantage was displayed once again by Perez’s 21-second gap to third-placed Charles Leclerc. Verstappen still leads the standings, and remains the firm favorite for the title, but Perez’s composed win cut the points gap to just six.
“It means a lot, it’s been a weekend where the pressure has been on, where we had to deliver, and we’ve done a tremendous job,” said Perez. “I’m really happy, an excellent result for the championship.”
Verstappen lamented being “a little bit unlucky” with the safety car timing but also conceded he wasn’t fully in tune with Red Bull’s RB19.
“I was close [to Perez] but when you stay a few laps like that the tires get a bit too warm, and then after that I slowly dropped back a bit and was not entirely happy with how I had the balance of the car,” he said. “I was trying a lot of things to try and find a better compromise to feel more comfortable. I took a few laps to figure out, but the last 10 laps were quite good again and I felt more comfortable, so the weekend was overall a good lesson.”
Leclerc returns Ferrari to the podium
A podium finish is not much to shout about in the overall history of Ferrari but Charles Leclerc finally delivered the first piece of 2023 silverware to Maranello at the fourth time of asking. After a miserable start to the year, with his Bahrain engine failure influencing his Saudi Arabian result, before a first-lap incident in Australia, Leclerc put a haul of points on the board with third place. Neither Leclerc nor Ferrari are in title contention this season but the result – combined with his spectacular one-lap pace – at least provides encouragement that Ferrari is heading in the right direction, even with Red Bull in another zip code. Indeed, Ferrari’s own press release headline was ‘a morale-boosting podium.’
“We are still not quite there in terms of race pace and we know that’s what we have to work on the most at the moment,” said Leclerc. “We maximised every session throughout the weekend and couldn't have done anything differently, so that’s something to be happy about and the team did a great job. The bottom line is that we have to focus on race pace and tyre management and push to make even more progress in the coming races.”
Despite the race pace deficit, team boss Frederic Vasseur was buoyant over the squad’s result and longer potential.
“Overall, this has been a positive weekend for the team,” said Vasseur. “There were signs of progress in Melbourne, but they were overshadowed by the poor race result. In the four-week break, we worked hard in Maranello and here in Baku we have made further progress which translated into a good result. We definitely are back to where we wanted to be in terms of qualifying, but there’s still a significant gap to Red Bull in the race. However, we aim to fight them for the win and we are gearing up to do just that.”
Alpine’s mountain of setbacks
Alpine has hopes of joining the fight for second in the standings but its trip to Azerbaijan was a disaster.
A raft of updates were brought to the A523 but Alpine had barely any time to fully evaluate them as Pierre Gasly suffered a large engine failure during practice, before crashing in Q1. Teammate Esteban Ocon was kept in the garage in practice after Gasly’s failure and, having not made the top 10 in either qualifying session, Alpine made the call to remove his car from parc ferme conditions and start both the races from the pit lane. Gasly and Ocon wound up only 14th and 15th respectively out of the 18 finishers in the race, leaving Alpine with only eight points to show from the opening four events.
“It’s been a bitterly disappointing weekend for the team and we must not repeat this type of performance again,” said Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer. “We very much started on the backfoot on Friday and we were not able to make any kind of recovery in any of the sessions. We were quite far off on car set-up on Friday during practice and with such limited running – notably with some reliability issues on both cars – we left ourselves with a mountain to climb for the remainder of the weekend.”
Alpine remains only sixth in the Constructors’ Championship, and is just six points behind McLaren, but the next gaggle of the teams are already an insurmountable distance up the table. The target for 2023 was to be a stronger fourth.
De Vries struggles continue
Nyck de Vries’ tough start to his rookie season continued with a poor display in Azerbaijan. AlphaTauri driver de Vries was an encouraging sixth during the sole practice session but crashed at Turn 3 on his first push lap in qualifying, and in the race hit the wall after 11 laps and was forced to retire. De Vries’ setbacks were placed in worse context as Yuki Tsunoda hustled AlphaTauri’s limited AT04 to eighth on the grid and followed it up by rounding out the top 10 in the race, picking up his second point in as many grands prix. De Vries is only five races into his Formula 1 career (he made a one-off appearance with Williams in Italy last year) but needs an uptick in form very soon. Red Bull’s management are not known for their patience when it comes to underperforming drivers.
“The accident today was fully my mistake,” said an apologetic de Vries. “It was very silly and unnecessary, and that responsibility is on me. I am disappointed with myself but that’s the way it is.”
F1 AzerbaijanGP Results
Zhou Guanyu DNF
Nyck De Vries DNF